23 February 1820: The Cato Street Conspiracy

Cato Street

The building used by the Cato Street Conspirators

At half past seven in the evening of 23 February 1820, a group of police officers stormed into a hayloft above a stable in Cato Street, London. Inside were a gang intent on assassinating members of the British cabinet who they believed were attending a dinner nearby. During the scuffle, one of the policemen, Richard Smithers, was stabbed and killed with a sword wielded by the leader of the conspirators, Arthur Thistlewood.

Thistlewood and his co-conspirators were members of the Society of Spencean Philanthropists, a group pledged to following the ideas of Thomas Spence. Their aim was to press the government into introducing social and political reforms and they were responsible for organising several riots.

After the Peterloo massacre on St Peter’s Fields in Manchester in 1819, radical members of the Spenceans, such as Arthur Thistlewood, took the group down a more violent path. George Ruthven, a police spy within the group, reported that the Spenceans were planning an armed rising.

More spies, including George Edwards, were sent to infiltrate the group. On 22 February 1820 a fictitious article was placed in the New Times suggesting that members of the cabinet would be meeting for a dinner on the following night at Lord Harrowby’s house in Grosvenor Square. Edwards showed this to Thistlewood and it was agreed that the dinner would provide an opportunity to assassinate the cabinet members and overthrow the government.

Twenty-seven people agreed to take part in the plot and William Davidson, who had once worked for Lord Harrowby, was sent to find out more about the dinner from the servants at the house. Although the servants replied that Lord Harrowby was not in London, Thistlewood thought they were lying and decided to continue.

Another of the conspirators, John Harrison, found the building in Cato Street, which was close to Grosvenor Square, and the gang gathered there in the afternoon of 23 February. When the police, who had been waiting in the Horse and Groom public house across the road, entered the hayloft that evening Thistlewood and three others escaped. They were soon captured, however, as their names and descriptions were known to Edwards and the other police spies.

Two of the conspirators, Robert Adams and John Monument, had the charges against them dropped in return for testifying against the rest of the gang. At the trial on 28 April 1820, ten men were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, but these sentences were later commuted.

Richard Bradburn, Charles Copper, John Harrison, John Strange and James Wilson were transported for life. John Brunt, William Davidson, James Ings, Richard Tidd and their leader Arthur Thistlewood were sent to Newgate Prison and hanged on 1 May 1820.

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